Photos by Alex Hodor-Lee
I’m out of guest list, done the best I could.
This is one of slowthai’s Twitter posts from a couple of weeks ago. Lately, on the day of a sold-out show, he’s been asking his fans via social media if anyone needs a ticket. People comment with their full name and slowthai responds by tagging them and saying, ‘you’re on the list,’ until his allocation of door spots inevitably runs out. This spectacle of online generosity is part of what makes slowthai such an alluring antihero. He’s crude, politically outspoken, sometimes abrasive, but he’s also charming and approachable—a self-described softy who wears his heart on his sleeve.
slowthai is a grime rapper from Northampton who grew up in a public housing estate known as ‘The Bush’. Born Tyron Frampton, he’s of Bajan and Irish descent and was raised by his single mum and a few different father figures along the way. He got his stage name, slowthai (‘no space, no caps’), from the nickname Slow Ty, because his childhood friends observed that he spoke slowly and slurred his words. These days he raps technically, hitting the off-beat with a thick Northampton accent laden with the slang of his upbringing.
‘When you grow up on an estate, it’s all you know, so you don’t realise the shit you’re in. You obviously know what mansions are and what it looks like to be rich, but you don’t know that you’re practically bottom of the pile,’ Ty explains.
‘They put everything you need on the edge of the estate so that you don’t have to venture out into the larger town centre or visit other cities—[but] you can’t really afford to anyway. We had a JD Sports, Tesco, pubs, corner shops, Lidl, GAME, [and] fast-food restaurants all in one little shopping centre… That’s why people don’t ever leave.’
At a certain age, it was impossible for Ty not to be aware of his class status, and this is one of the major themes on his debut album, Nothing Great About Britain. He recounts his first experiences meeting ‘rich kids’ at house parties and how they would give his crew the evil eyes, seeing them as ‘like scum.’ Now he considers that this mode of class segregation, where the poor are forced into one neighbourhood and cut off from the rest, ‘allows for more negativity among people, [more] hatred and separation.’
But slowthai easily switches back to optimism, showing unapologetic pride for his upbringing on the estate. ‘I love it there,’ he says. ‘It made me who I am today.’
And today, by all appearances, Ty is doing well. He was recently pictured on the cover of NME drinking a bottle of Prosecco in a bubble bath; his debut album hit number nine in the UK charts and earned a slate of positive reviews; he’s collaborated on songs with Skepta, Jaykae and, more recently, Denzel Curry; and in 2019, he toured the US, Europe and Australia, playing shows in eleven different countries worldwide. Of Australia, he said, ‘Yeah, it was my first time. I loved it. Proper bless people everywhere.’
While slowthai’s album has been well received internationally, it’s so specifically British that it’s almost impossible to understand without some knowledge of the issues that currently affect the country. He told DIY mag earlier this year, ‘I want to write references that you will only get if you’re British.’ So, in addition to the ongoing class disparities that Ty has lived through, he is concerned by the unprecedented and disastrous Brexit campaign, which has been defined by seemingly endless complications since the national referendum in June 2016.
Ty has been blunt and unapologetic in his criticism of Brexit, of successive prime ministers Theresa May and Boris Johnson, and of Queen Elizabeth. At the Mercury Prize music awards, he brandished a decapitated effigy of the conservative prime minister and shouted, ‘Fuck Boris Johnson, fuck everything, and there’s nothing great about Britain!’ He’s also been known to yell, ‘fuck the queen,’ at shows. At the end of his album’s title track, he addresses her directly: ‘I tell you how it is, I will treat you with the utmost respect/ Only if you respect me a little bit Elizabeth, you cunt.’
But slowthai’s relationship with Britain is much more complicated than these stunts might have you believe. ‘The title [Nothing Great About Britain] is just another experiment to show how small-minded and lazy people are, they don’t take time to look deeper into anything. They see, read and judge things before they’ve even educated themselves on whatever the topic is,’ he explains.
‘It’s like a rhetorical question, it’s me questioning what is great because I don’t believe a history of bloodshed and colonisation is great. I don’t believe the current state of our politics is great. There’s obviously a lot of things that are great, namely the people and communities. But the album title is a question, allowing people to look at it and make up their own minds on why we are so great.’
In addition to being politically outspoken, slowthai has a fondness for stripping off his clothes and stage diving, which has caused a few critics to equate him with the punk movement. There are certainly parallels between Nothing Great About Britain and the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks; both are gritty, controversial and take direct aim at the British establishment. Ty’s ‘bromance’ with British punk band Idles has also been well publicised. He tells me they’re family, and he listens to their music almost every day.
‘[Idles] encapsulate a lot of the same messages and morals as me, and they aren’t afraid to use their platform to speak,’ he says. ‘That’s the whole point of a platform, not for fame and all that bullshit.’
In December, Ty will turn twenty-five, and in many ways, he’s a reliable representative of his generation. His merch depicts a cartoon image of the world on fire, an obvious reference to the looming threat of climate-induced extinction. He recently posted about World Mental Health Day, reminding fans, ‘IT’S OK TO NOT BE OK.’ And he’s pretty much an open book when it comes to social media, having described it as a form of diary writing where he streams his thoughts.
One of the highlights of his album is ‘Gorgeous’, a song charged with memories from his childhood in The Bush housing estate. The track ends with Ty telling a story about his stepdad taking him to see a football match when he was a child. Apparently, producer Kwes Darko keeps a mic recording in the studio at all times, and the story Ty tells was a candid moment that Darko managed to capture.
Ty explains, in heavy Brit slang, how he and his stepdad boarded a six-hour train to Liverpool, before Ty pointed out that the game was actually being played at West Bromwich, and they had to get off and catch another train. They got to the game hours early and waited around, before Ty realised that his stepdad didn’t actually have tickets and was looking for a tout or a scalper to get them into the stadium. They missed the first half of the match, and although Ty sounds amused while recounting the story, it’s clearly a moment that affected him.
‘I always remember being so pissed like, ‘cause that man lied to me, innit, after everything,’ he concludes. It’s a captivating little interlude, but also a heavy sentiment that speaks volumes about Ty’s youth. Growing up in a council estate was difficult.
At this point, slowthai has been touring for months and he’ll be on the road for the rest of the year. And as much as he’s proud of where he’s from, travelling is a privilege that he appreciates. ‘It wasn’t until I started venturing out to different cities that I realised as people we aren’t supposed to be stuck in one place our whole lives,’ he says. ‘Gotta be free as bird.’